There doesn't seem to be much rhyme-or-reason to Amazon pilot seasons, does there? This is their third batch of offerings, and I don't blame you for wondering what happened to any of the previous pilots. Does anyone watch ALPHA HOUSE or BETAS? Didn't think so. TRANSPARENT is apparently going to be released this month, but who knows what's happening with all the others they've committed to, like BOSCH, THE AFTER and MOZART IN THE JUNGLE.
I'd love to see some structure to their business model. Release some pilots once a year, have subscribers vote on their quality, actually 'commission to series' based on the results of the voting (it's unclear if Amazon genuinely care what subscribers think), release "the winners" as full-blown series once they're made, then repeat the whole thing next year. Is that so hard? I'm just confused and increasingly irritated by how they're choosing to do things, with pilots seemingly being launched twice a year with no clear idea about scheduling.
Anyway, I've now seen all of the new dramas and comedies Amazon have piloted for August 2014. Below are my thoughts on what sounded like a good crop on paper, but ended up being very unsatisfying with a few exceptions.
★½ (out of four)
I didn't like writer-director-producer Whit Stillman's THE COSMOPILITANS, as I found it dry and hollow, but I'm fully aware it's a matter of taste. This is a half-hour comedy about a group of pretentious Americans living in Paris, desperate to be considered "Parisians" and find love in the romantic City of Light. It stars Adam Brody as the mild-mannered leader of the ex-pats, with support from indie darling Chloë Sevigny as a fashion magazine editor who catches his eye.
Stillman's a gifted writer and observer of the world, and this is exactly the kind of show online services should be taking a chance on (as mainstream networks would be very unlikely to bother with it), but it comes with all the caveats that implies. If you're a fan of Stillman's oeuvre (BARCELONA, METROPOLITAN), you're going to enjoy his measured, meticulously written piece. If you just don't care about the bourgeois upper-middle classes and find them monumentally dull, or just too removed from your own life to care about, you simply won't. So just enjoy the location shooting around Paris, because it's breathtaking.
Of all the pilots, HAND OF GOD feels like it believes this process is a formality and a full series commitment is inevitable. After all, it has a high concept that's attention-grabbing, adheres to the robust crime procedural formula, and is full of talented character actors. Unfortunately, it also stitches together lots of overplayed elements other shows found big success with (in particular the U.S anti-hero love-affair that peaked with BREAKING BAD and should be left to rest for awhile now).
Pernell Harris (SONS OF ANARCHY's Ron Perlman) is a morally corrupt judge who has a breakdown, which leads to him believing God has begun speaking to him through his comatose son, whose ventilator is due to be switched off. In this pilot, Harris hears his son's voice ask him to track down the man who raped his daughter-in-law, so he goes on a dangerous vigilante mission to bring the perpetrator to overdue justice; which involves recruiting a born-again psychopath called K.D (Garret Dillahunt). The story also throws in a con man preacher responsible for Harris becoming a born again Christian, and political shenanigans with Harris's friend, Mayor Robert Boston (THE WIRE's Andre Royo).
It sounds a great deal more interesting and exciting than the execution renders it, which is largely down to creator Ben Watkins' script. There's the kernel of a great show here, but it doesn't come together. A big problem is how nobody's likeable or very sympathetic, so it's hard to get behind Harris—even when he's going after a rapist. He's so messed up and makes so many bad decisions along the way, that you end up feeling hollow about the whole sorry endeavour. Perlman's doing what he can, but the script never delivers a solid reason to believe in Harris, or want him to succeed. If he's hallucinating, it's frightening to imagine the tragedies he's going to be causing along the way; and if The Lord's genuinely talking to him I don't want to believe in that sort of God. To end on a high, thanks to director Marc Forster's (WORLD WAR Z) efforts behind the camera, it's by far the most visually-pleasing of the pilots.
I have a soft spot for Shaun Cassidy's mid-'90s one-season wonder AMERICAN GOTHIC, so have always kept an eye on his career. Sadly, ROAR ('97) and the GOTHIC-y sci-fi drama INVASION ('05) weren't very good, and likewise only lasted one season. It makes sense that he's trying his luck within the Amazon model, but HYSTERIA is probably the least interesting of all the projects he's been involved with and, in my opinion, doesn't deserve or warrant a series commitment.
AMERICAN BEAUTY's Mena Suvari (whose best subsequent role has been in the Wheatus music video "Teenage Dirtbag"), plays a brilliant neurologist brought back to her hometown of Austin, Texas, to investigate a mysterious infection causing teenagers to violently convulse. The epicentre is a group of high school cheerleaders, and the not-so-astonishing twist is that this "virus" can be spread, um, virally—as in technologically, through social media and YouTube videos. Yes, that's right, if you watch a clip of someone having a fit on your laptop, empathy will pass the affliction on to you! I mean, ummm... okay. And now what? It's hard to really see where this show could go, as everything about it feels like it should be a ten-minute short film a uni student made (who happens to know the lead singer of Wheatus, perhaps). Desperately dull claptrap with an unrelentingly foreboding atmosphere that bores you to tears within minutes.
I quite liked the first third of REALLY; a single-camera comedy written, directed and starring Jay Chandrasekhar. You've probably never heard of him, but he's part of the Broken Lizard comedy troupe that made SUPER TROOPERS and he directed that shitty DUKES OF HAZZARD remake. He's had more success on the small-screen, helming many episodes of COMMUNITY, and this is a big auteur step for him. Chandrasekhar plays Jed, a neurosurgeon married to a lawyer called Lori (Sarah Chalke). They're middle-aged parents, clutching onto the last vestiges of their twenties, but finding that life and kids have other ideas. Like I said, the first act was fairly amusing (despite hitting very old targets), and I liked Chandrasekhar's style of smart-dopey acting, but the concept began to irritate me once the pilot introduced all their thirtysomething friends—played by Selma Blair, Luka Jones, Travis Schuldt, Lindsay Sloane, Hayes Macarthur and Collette Wolfe.
I get what the show is trying to do, but it suffers from something a lot of U.S comedies fall prey to: I don't believe these people have lives worth getting upset about. Chandrasekhar's character is married to the gorgeous Sarah Chalke from SCRUBS, and one of the pilot's biggest 'woe is me' moments occurs when he's forced to wait 24-hours for a blowjob. Oh, my heart fucking bleeds. British comedies do this sort of thing much better, but U.S shows seem scared to show unsuccessful people in their middle-age who have a genuine reason to be full of bile and angst. Consequently, while it had early signs of promise, I can't say the trivial marital problems of a wealthy Chicago neurosurgeon is enough to lure me back.
Having semi-retired from movie-making, director Steven Soderbergh's having a positive effect on television. He produces and directs Cinemax's excellent medical drama THE KNICK, and now produces Amazon's RED OAKS. This '80s-set drama, directed by David Gordon Green (EASTBOUND & DOWN, PINEAPPLE EXPRESS), revolves around the members and employees of the titular suburban country club. In particular, twenty-year-old tennis prodigy David Myers (SUBMARINE's Craig Roberts), who gets a job there as an assistant tennis pro, and has to deal with his crazy colleagues while dealing with his father's near-fatal heart attack, which suddenly makes his privileged upbringing feel built on lies.
A comedy-drama in essence, I can't say RED OAKS was particularly funny or dramatic, but it had a lot of charm and some nice performances. Roberts delivers another saucer-eyed misfit here, but Myers is a youngster of considerable talent and already "a winner" in many respects—if only because he's dating the country club's gorgeous aerobics instructor, Karen (TEEN WOLF's Gage Golightly). There's also scene-stealing support from Ennis Esmer as Nash, the alpha male of the club's tennis courts, who lights up the screen.
RED OAKS actually reminded me of the 2009 movie ADVENTURELAND starring Jesse Eisenberg—another comic-of-age story set in the 1980s, about theme park employees—and that's not a bad comparison to make. Or maybe it's an upmarket CADDYSHACK? This has the most potential of Amazon's third wave of pilots, despite the fact there isn't a huge amount of conflict anywhere yet. This pilot merely introduced a potential new suitor for Karen, and a last-minute complication involving the club's egotistical President (Paul Reiser) and a mystery girl who turns David's head, so there's hopefully more to come. Game, set and match.